Though the cyborgs and bionic superheroes of the silver screen are familiar pop culture icons, bionic elements quietly surround us in our daily lives and have had a far-bigger impact on the quality of our lives—and, often, on our very ability to live. “Bionic Me”—a new traveling exhibit hosted by the Science Museum of Virginia—will unveil the miracle of those medical and industrial technological advances, what they can do, and how they work through 22 hands-on and interactive displays. The exhibit may spark, among even young visitors, a vision of what the future in this arena could hold in store for us.

“Many of these advances were developed or inspired by people who were living with a disability or knew someone who was and had a first-hand understanding of the challenges they faced in their everyday lives. They sparked the development of a device to empower them and augment their experience,” said Jennifer Guild, Manager of Communications and Curiosity. One example of such advances is voice-control technology—such as that of the ubiquitous Amazon Alexa—which was developed to meet the needs of people with mobility issues, including paralysis that would make it impossible to turn on a light switch.

The exhibit, developed by Australia-based SciTech, is a perfect fit for the museum—whose mission is to “inspire Virginians to enrich their lives through science” and whose hallmark approach is learning through play and direct experience.

“The exhibit dives deep into the biology of science and explores how the principles of science, technology, engineering and math intersect and work together to accomplish a goal,” Guild said.

Though geared to be understood by children ages 5-12, the concepts presented will fascinate visitors of all ages. Guests will have an opportunity to compete with friends or family to use a brain-computer to raise a ball floating in a tube by the power of their minds. Visitors can explore the powers of an exoskeleton, which they can physically enter to experiment with the impact of their manipulation of controls as shown on a screen in front of them. At other stations, they can discover the temperature of different parts of their body with an infrared camera, experiment with the control that different accessories can give them in a giant wind tunnel, and experience the challenge of making their way through a tunnel in total darkness.

“The exhibit reminds us that bionics are all around us rather than just the over-the-top machinations of Hollywood. Some things we take for granted—such as contact lenses or Braille—are advances that enhance our sensory experience and understanding of the world,” said Guild. “In addition, Braille is a reminder that even young people can contribute to the development of those enhancements—given that this invention that has allowed thousands of people to read by touch was invented by a 15-year-old!”

Guild has seen children as young as 5 engage with and understand displays, which show the different augmentations that have been made to different body parts and different systems of the body. The exhibit includes an ethical consideration of the limits of how technology should be used to enhance the body, and Guild is confident that young people have the capacity to explore this question as well. “We can’t assume that a 10- or 12-year-old exploring this exhibit couldn’t understand that question and have a good, solid opinion about how to answer it,” she said.

“The thing I love about this is exhibit is that it gets people to think about how bionics impact people’s lives and what some people have to do to live a ‘normal’’ life,” said Guild. “Visitors may also leave with a better understanding of the work and thought and iterations that went into creating medical advances that we take for granted. For example, someone had to come up with the idea for a wheelchair and draft a concept of it. And others may have developed ways to make wheelchairs lighter and more comfortable.”

The exhibit will be complemented by the film “Superpower Dogs,” shown on the 76-foot screen in the museum’s Dome theater. The film is both heartwarming and jaw-dropping as it displays the dramatic feats of rescue dogs, whose keen senses have been honed and applied to accomplish astonishing missions. Superpower dogs include a puppy that has been trained to join one of the most elite disaster-relief teams in America, a dog that accomplishes avalanche rescues in the mountains of British Columbia, a Newfoundland dog that saves the lives of drowning victims, and even Bloodhounds who are leading the fight to save endangered species in Africa.

And, as any dog owner whose pet has put its paw on their leg when it was most needed will testify, that the super-senses of dogs go beyond smell or hearing and include emotional sensitivity. The film features a Golden Retriever named Ricochet, who helps people with emotional and sensory issues, such as veterans dealing with post-traumatic-stress disorder.

“The veteran related how when he was walking with Ricochet through a crowded, noisy area, she sensed that his anxiety level was rising, stopped and led him in a different direction,” said Guild. “I think visitors will go home with an even greater appreciation for the superpowers of their own dog.”

Collette Caprara is a local writer and artist.

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